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Karla was the first to regain sight, though a tremendous ringing filled her ears. Even the two flyers were reeling, their craft having stalled as they drifted over the towers. Losing altitude.
“Hangar,” she tried to say, but it came out as a croak.
She could land them. Could land them right now. Pilots from Rust Town who flew for the sphere always had somebody on the ground, some loved one making sure their landing strip was clear. They flew heedless of their lack of any similar assistance on the other end.
Well, she wasn’t going to let her friends go without a landing control. Not when they’d been so kind to her, put themselves at so much risk to do it.
If she could just move her damn arms!
The Raven prototype was nearly clear of the upper citadel. Soon it would be out of reach. With all this wind and rain they’d never hear anything.
She forced all her terror into one last desperate shout.
It was Griffin who heard the shout, although he was distracted by treading air. Aside from buoying his craft on its vertical surge through the sky, the air in front of the Ash Cloud was easier to steer in–as though he were just paddling his arms in a thick molasses sludge. But even that couldn’t keep him and Jenny still forever.
He wasted no time. “Karla says there’s a hangar!”
“Where?” Sweat was mingling with the rain on Jenny’s brow. In one heartstopping look, Griffin remembered she was twelve.
I will protect you, he vowed. Just like that time before.
They banked to port. Griffin stole another look at Karla. The Harpooneer was gasping, winded, seemingly only able to look one way–and not at all the scattered, shattered bones of the horrific thing Jenny had blown up.
At the scattered, broken form of a boy. Kio.
He’s gone, Karla thought. She thought that she would know for certain when this happened, that their close bond at least entitled her to some sort of message. Yet there was nothing. Just the storm and the rain.
Then he twitched. Opened one eye to look at her.
And she did feel something–a surge of warm energy that threw off the cold of the storm and sent her limbs just enough strength to move.
One move begat another. Karla was on her feet.
“She’s pointing!” Griffin called to Jenny. “Hard port!”
Perfectly in sync, they arced around the castle, leaving the Ash Cloud astern. The wind at their back felt like a hand of terrible destiny pressing Griff onward. Through his mask and the greening air he saw the facets of the flying castle slide past: the swaths of moss glowing bright against the dark, the stout vines, a crown on top that looked like a water catchment system by way of a child’s tree fort.
Did they really build all of this?
They rushed out of sight of Karla. Jenny pointed out the hangar at the same time Griffin noticed it.
Coming around the corner of the floating isle, hurtling to cut them off, were the rest of the skeletal monsters.
“Come on!” Griffin shouted, angling toward the open sides of the expansive empty room hanging off the bottom end of the sphere. “They can’t follow us in there–the opening’s too small!”
“Karla, wait!” Kio nearly went feline again before taking several seconds to get his vision of the black room under control. “You can’t let them go there!”
“What?” Karla shouted. They ran toward each other around the rim, skidding, grabbing hands to keep from falling down.
“Don’t send them to the hangar,” Kio said. “Don’t let them land there, it’s not safe.”
“Nowhere’s safe. They’ll be safer there than in the sky.”
“No,” Kio shook his head. “Raptor’s still there!”
The green light from the Ash Cloud shone on her face. A shadow passed over it, then another.
They were being swarmed by Neogah.
The landing was easy. They had nobody clearing the airstrip, sure, but there was a lot of airstrip, and nobody to get in the way. Or rather, the person planning to get in the way preferred to allow them to land first.
Jenny and Griffin braked hard, throwing out their ornithopter’s wings to present a broad surface area. The drag caught them, whipping them back to drift through the hangar’s open wall. Beyond was an expanse of the grey-brown stone the whole castle was built out of, with strange marks gouged into the floor.
The dragons circled behind them, unable to enter just as her uncle had predicted. Jenny winced as her feet hit the floor, but ran alongside Griff, tapping out a safe landing as they skidded to a halt.
Her torso and arms burned from the harness. She hadn’t realized how long she’d been holding herself aloft, fighting for her life. As hastily as she would have if she’d crash-landed in the ocean again, she unbuckled it with fumbling fingers, and took her first steps on the Sphere.
Jenny’s entire body coursed with a thrill. We’re actually here! The castle all around her was real, solid, her parents’ dream and her uncle’s and her own summoned out of the ethereal world.
She leapt clear of the harness. Damn the dragons. “We’re here!” she shouted.
“Yes,” Dr. Griffin said, not sounding excited. When she turned to him, she founding him staring upward.
At a lift descending from a room in the ceiling, carrying a black-cloaked man who was smiling as though they’d both just finished telling an excellent joke.
Karla watched Kio’s face: green from the air, but stoic otherwise. His tattoo seemed a barrier against the world now, a holding of his own unique self against the void. This far, it said. No farther.
The Neogah formed up: four of them now.
Kio said, “We’re going to die.”
Karla said, “Not while we’re together.”
It was all so stupid it hurt to think about. How had they ever countenanced behaving in such a way? Yelling and shrieking about lies and secrets–if they could have talked rationally about them at the beginning, they could have done so now. A promise held. It could repair itself each time it broke, as long as the people who made it were willing, and deserving. It was a beautiful thing.
“Ready to fight?” she asked.
He swallowed. “I’m ready to run.”
“All right,” she told him with a smile. “We can do both.”
That was the last thing she said before the Neogah swooped in. In four sets of talons, two of them each gripped Karla and Kio, and held fast even as they shifted forms as violently and quickly as they could.
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